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Don’t rush on decisions for new home of Next

All of Birmingham and its neighboring communities rejoiced last June when it was announced that the city had purchased the YMCA building at 400 E. Lincoln and its land for the future home of Birmingham's senior service organization, NEXT, and for the ongoing services provided by the YMCA.


The city purchased the building for $2 million, and the city commission approved a three-year lease agreement in the amount of $1 a year, allowing the YMCA to continue to provide their services at the property, with Next paying $500,000 towards the purchase price. Subsequently, Birmingham voters overwhelmingly approved a three-year, .33-mill tax to provide funding for the senior and community center for improvements and to provide a sinking fund for future improvements.


Next is a nonprofit, multi-community organization serving individuals from Birmingham, Bingham Farms, Beverly Hills and Franklin since it was created in 1978, serving ages 50 and older, a demographic that is growing rapidly. Since its inception, it has been sharing or renting limited space from Birmingham Public Schools (BPS), and has a lease, set to expire in 2026, at the former Midvale Elementary School, which it has long outgrown.


It was first thought that Next would occupy 75 percent of a renovated building, with the Y occupying the other 25 percent. But last summer's giddiness is now bumping against a hard reality.


The current Y building is about 48,000 square feet. Initial estimates of how much space needed by both Next and the Y have ballooned to 71,000 square feet, if everyone got everything on their wish list. Sharpening a dull pencil and realizing there were spaces and activities that could be shared got them down to 59,800 square feet – still a sizable increase over the current space, and one that needs to be considerably improved and renovated, as the current YMCA building is old and antiquated by anyone's terms. Further prioritization will likely pare the space down further, but there are more urgent issues that have to be resolved first.


We recognize that Next is very anxious to get into a customized, permanent home that is theirs. They have spent almost a decade in search of a building to purchase, and rightly leapt at the opportunity to purchase the YMCA building when it became available last spring. The urgency to purchase quickly was increased by the end of former Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus' contract, and a desire by all parties to tie all loose ends before Markus left. The millage was quickly put on last August's election ballot and passed. All good. But since, there has been an almost frenetic effort by city administration and city boards to hire an architect, staff committees and get started on the renovation, without doing due diligence on what really needs to be done, how much it will cost and how long it should and will take. Some believe the building will be better off knocked down and rebuilt; others feel an addition and renovation will be adequate. But no one really knows. Yet. Nor do they have any idea what those costs could be.


Slow down.


The old adage of the tortoise and the hare could not be more apt. Mistakes are frequently the end game of going too quickly – and they're expensive in every way. We are glad the city commission has finally hired an owner's representative to be their eyes and ears in the upcoming process and assist in making decisions, but realistically, rather than a later appointment, that should have been first – and one not made at 1:30 in the morning in a meeting that went to 3 a.m. this past week. No wise decisions can and should be made after midnight, especially for important city and community business.


We are strong supporters of Next, but there must be a reprioritization before any further decisions are made. We are pleased commissioners did not make a final decision on a feasibility study that was presented this week, seeking greater clarity. Later, they learned that rather than moving on in a few years, the YMCA wants to stay in the community in perpetuity. That is a great thing for Birmingham, as the Y provides low-cost recreation for the entire community. As commissioner Therese Longe pointed out, in the original proposal for the purchase of Next with the Y, the community center was the YMCA space.


While Next may feel pressure from a lease that is supposed to expire with BPS in 2026, we encourage them to engage in a lease extension now, especially if a bond is needed for renovation or building costs, as the school district may propose a bond for a preschool at the Midvale site, and it would not be wise to simultaneously come before voters.


It's an exciting time for Birmingham, seniors and the whole area. Yet, while steady progress on a myriad of issues is critical, too often haste on critical decisions now could mean expensive mistakes before shovels hit the dirt. This project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity requiring careful consideration by community leaders.

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